From prodigal daughter to retirement planner


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(Reposted from 2016)

In which I overcome a lengthy financial sulk and agree to think about money.


Shoved to the bottom of the boot camp list: Get my finances in order.

No argument, this is high priority. This hypothesis has been repeatedly researched and proven: to be happy, people do need money. Not heaps, but sufficient. In fact, when you Google any such phrase as “retirement planning” or “happy retirement”, all results are about money money money. You know and I know that money doth not a happy retirement make, but clearly it helps.

So a few months ago my sergeant major locked me in a room with a financial advisor. A nice, intelligent, friendly, experienced, helpful, trustworthy financial advisor called John, which is a nice, friendly, trustworthy sort of a name. John discussed my situation and gave me some forms, which I took home and threw into a corner.

Wah wah wah! Don’t make me think about money!

I don’t want to think about money. In my experience, sums have a habit of working out OK. When I earned $2,000 per year, that was sufficient. When teachers’ salaries rose to the princely sum of $8,000 per year, that was sufficient. In the years when I earned virtually nothing, virtually nothing was also sufficient, because the IRD would kindly give me a tax refund, which would generally be sufficient for a while.

“Sufficient”: the concept is beautiful. I love this well polished fairy tale, which comes straight from my inner Smugilla.

Financial autonomy in la-la land

Even living in a caravan, I felt happy to be in charge of my own finances. Long ago, I left a paid job for a precarious writing career — took a terrifying leap off a cliff into financial fog — and I wallowed in it, panic attacks and all. Nobody made me do it.

Mind you, when I say “in charge”, I do not mean I had control of my finances. However, we had a comfortable arrangement, my money and I. We agreed not to bother each other but to get on with our separate lives. I managed by living in the wop wops and frequenting op shops. God knows how my money managed, popping in and out of pockets. I didn’t want to know.

Poverty by choice is not poverty

Chosen poverty is a world apart from enforced poverty, especially as I had a profession to fall back on in tough times. Chosen poverty gives a sense of satisfaction and pride. I wouldn’t dream of comparing that fey life style with a genuine poverty trap, because I had the euphoria of creative satisfaction, and because (to labour the point) I somehow always had sufficient money.

In my fifties I slipped out of a poet’s garret and back into the real world. Yet my money habits persisted. To this day I maintain a vague, inconsistent, optimistic attitude of wilful ignorance.

The sergeant major advocates retirement planning

Thanks to my mother’s example, I have always intuitively tailored my wants to fit the money available.  A movie? Sure. Bunch of daffodils? Go on, lash out. Mysteriously, my income has covered my outgoings for decades. Whatever I want, I get. I’m frugal in some ways, extravagant in others, and frankly, I enjoy both.

That’s Smugilla talking.

What folly. What arrogance. It has to stop, says the sergeant major.

He insists that I plan for retirement. He claims that in my 80s I will have less opportunity (and inclination) to earn money when the need strikes. What nonsense! And he says I can anticipate some nasty expenses, for example for health.

I can’t see it myself, can you? But for the sake of peace I have finally succumbed to his nagging.

The financial plan, coming ready or not

I do admit, grudgingly, that it might be a Good Thing to track my spending and possibly even start a budget.

I do see that just leaving money in the bank at 1.25 per cent interest might be a bit silly — not convinced, mind you.

So next week a team of wild horses will drag me kicking and screaming into town to receive my personal financial plan.

I’ll probably hurl it into a corner for a few months before I read it.

That sense of entitlement: an enemy of joy-writing


What blocks you from really enjoying the act of writing? I can think of at least a dozen things that stop the joy in its tracks, and one is a sense of entitlement. It’s a killer.

I encountered this phenomenon very early in my writing life. Barely had my first book of poetry been published than I was befriended by a bunch of poets, nice people, some brilliant, all kindly disposed and helpful to this newbie writer.

But there was an under-current to our friendship that deeply puzzled me. Whenever literary awards and prizes were discussed, a grumbling and a mumbling surged up. And I found that some of these nice people were making themselves sick with envy and resentment.

After forty years of observing the processes and culture around book prizes and fellowships and scholarships and what-nots, I understand something. So hear me, all ye unhappy writers.

  • Prizes are awarded by judges. Judges have strong personal opinions. Judges may not agree. That’s the norm.
  • No prize is yours by right.
  • You slave away year after year over your books. Don’t do it in the hope of prizes. Prizes may come your way. Or not.
  • If you assume that you deserve a literary award and therefore you ought to get one, you will make yourself miserable, and nobody else will care.

There. Go forth and have a good time with your marvellous gift!



Of 10-dollar notes and 20-dollar notes and giant gerbera

Gifts for 76th birthday: flowers and shredded dollar s

On 24 February I received  one of the most mysterious, comical and metaphorical birthday gifts ever.

OK, you recognise flowers, don’t you? They’re just background in this case, but apt for my current state of mind. So big, bright and bold they seem artificial — but they’re real. You know how smiling or standing up straight  can generate happiness or confidence respectively, in a bio-feedbacky sort of way? Well, I need to be big and strong right now, and so these are the right flowers for the day.

But hey, what’s in that package?

I found a package of bitsy stuff on the kitchen bench when I returned from a birthday dinner. So, late at night. So, maybe I wasn’t looking very carefully.

Borage tea? I turned on the kettle. Fortunately, I didn’t feel like tea.

Pot pourri? If so, that could wait.

Something to smoke? Improbable: that would breach an unwritten rule of AirBnB etiquette.

Right on the money

Turns out the package is $500 in dollar notes, shredded, from the New Zealand Reserve Bank Museum. Money money money… Just when I’ve started to learn the skills of money management (about 65 years late).

Maybe this gift is a shriek from my conscience. Yes, I virtually shredded my own money for decades by purchasing unnecessary things that took my fancy at the time. By not paying attention to my earning and spending patterns. By trusting in the good old New Zealand motto, “She’ll be right!”

On the other hand, let’s keep a sense of proportion. Money squandered or lost in transit is not the whole picture. See how sweetly the shredded dollars settle in amongst the flowers? You could almost call it origami.

Say I employ 5 collage artists for 5 hours at $50 an hour, do you think they could reassemble the confetti into the original notes? Unlikely: arithmetic, darling.

Note to self: money

Squandering has had its hour.
Let your bad investments die
and wave your foolish buys goodbye.

Hope so far has mostly flowered
in the foreground of your life.
Sit with that and don’t ask why.
The New Zealand Reserve Bank Museum.